The Test of Time: A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.



Probably asked you before, but what the hell, let’s check the pulse again. Outside of Wes Craven’s seminal dream-slashing original, what is your favorite A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET sequel? Off top, I’d probably go with the OG, then DREAM WARRIORS, DREAM MASTER, NEW NIGHTMARE, DREAM CHILD, FREDDY VS. JASON, FREDDY’S REVENGE, FREDDY’S DEAD, and then, way-way-way down below, the abysmal Sam Bayer remake. I’m still looking for a refund for that dumb ugly bastard!

But if you were to ask the great Robert Englund – who we all know made a career out of playing Freddy Krueger – he’d tell you his favorite of all the ELM STREET flicks, including the original, is A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET PART 4: THE DREAM MASTER. And why not, the movie is not only the most financially successful of all the ELM STREET joints (until FREDDY VS JASON), amassing nearly $50 million at the U.S. box-office alone, THE DREAM MASTER was also the highest grossing horror film in all of 1988 (considering what grand year ’88 was for horror, that’s some feat!) It was such a success for New Line that the TV series Freddy’s Nightmares was green-lit as a result.

And hey, as it happens, THE DREAM MASTER just celebrated its 30th birthday this past Sunday. You know what that means, right? Are you Ready for Freddy!? Rest in Hell yeah you are. Let’s see if the paltry Test of Time is any match for THE DREAM MASTER himself, Freddy mother*cking Krueger!

THE STORY: Conceived by first time scribe Brian Helgeland, who not only helped Robert Englund write his directorial debut 976-EVIL the same year, but would go on to win an Oscar for a truly great film in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL less than a decade later, THE DREAM MASTER is also co-written by the lifelong horror siblings Jim and Ken Wheat. In good hands from the jump, the story wisely picks up shortly after the events of DREAM WARRIORS ended. Unfortunately, Patricia Arquette was unable to reprise her role of Kristen Parker and was replaced by the effective but ersatz Tuesday Knight. Kristen is the last remaining child of the adults who burned Freddy Krueger at the stake years ago, and our favorite wise-cracking child murderer with a revolting melted-pate is out to kill her fine behind and all of her unwitting high-school pals. This includes Kincaid (Ken Sagoes), Joey (Rodney Eastman), Alice (Lisa Wilcox), Sheila (Toy Newkirk), Debbie (Brooke Theiss), and my favorite, the karate-kicking Rick (Andras Jones), Alice’s brother (who was a twin in the original script). When our supposed lead character is boldly and brazenly killed off at the midway point, it’s up to Alice to face Freddy in the dream world and avenge her high-school besties.

Renny Harlin, the Finnish director coming off his spirited horror flick PRISON the year before, reportedly refused to take no for answer from New Line brass, Bob Shaye, and was eventually given the chance to direct DREAM WARRIORS. Remember, Wes Craven refused to helm the project, and Chuck Russell, the director of DREAM WARRIORS the year before, was off making THE BLOB. The other directors considered by New Line weren’t cutting it (including Dutch director Dick Maas), and thus the 28 year old Harlin landed the gig. And he did such a bang-up job that he would go on to helm DIE HARD 2 after the mega-success of THE DREAM MASTER.

WHAT HOLDS-UP: One of the major reasons why THE DREAM MASTER is one of the most critically and commercially successful of all ELM STREET flicks is because of how well the entirety holds up. Reappraising the film the other day, I was instantly struck by what a brilliant tone-setting opening sequence Harlin achieves to start the film. He so effectively disorients the viewer by establishing a surreal dream-logic that will inform how the rest of the film is to be perceived. And it’s precisely this soporific tone and bleary-eyed mania that has preserved the film like a mosquito in amber for the past 30 years. Right off the bat, Harlin nails the tonality needed to keep ELM STREET its own brand of off-kilter horror.

But moving past the deftly directed opener, there are a number of aspects to DREAM MASTER that still retain their potency. For one, the pell-mell pacing and ever-entertaining tempo of the film – by no coincidence tied-in with the rapid-cut MTV sensibility (as seen in glorious throwback MTV ads in the film, more on that below) – prevent the film from boasting a single dull moment. Straight up, there aren’t any. At 88 minutes before post-credits, the film absolutely hums along at an eminently watchable clip. Part of this has to do with retaining DREAM WARRIORS editor Chuck Weiss, who edited this movie directly afterward, lending an airtight continuity between both flicks. Also, Michael N. Knue helped cut the film, coming right off equally entertaining horror flicks as HOUSE, NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, and THE HIDDEN. The sheer amusement of the movie’s pacing shan’t be undersold.

Let’s not front though. We all know what holds up best about THE DREAM MASTER is its deadly dream sequences and concomitant set-pieces. It starts with the Kristen’s opening nightmare, which, in terms of production design, is top-notch in its boiler room recreation, thundering rain and lightning, etc. Kristen pulls Kincaid and Joey into her dream, thereby directly endangering them. Kincaid’s dog named Jason (whose white face and dotted-black spots have been interpreted to be a sly barb aimed at Krueger’s contemporary, Jason Voorhees) brings Kincaid to the infamous junkyard, where the dog (hellhound) pisses on Freddy’s grave and reanimates his severed bones. Kincaid is unceremoniously gored moments later when the Fredster digs his claw in the boy’s gut!

Joey’s death, albeit a callback to Johnny Depp getting the life sucked out of him in Craven’s original, is also a wildly gruesome showstopper. Water-beds, you gotta love the 80s! Joey falls asleep to an old black and white flick, wakes up to find a sexy nude nubile swimming in the water under his mattress. “Now this is what a call a wet dream!” Freddy bursts out of the water with that sweaty melted pate and turns the water bed into a literal bloodbath. Shite’s glorious!

On to Kristen’s death, which is doubly impressive in the way it, without warning, ends the life of the character we were led to believe was the protagonist. I love when filmmakers have the balls to pull this move off, a la Hitchcock via Janet Leigh in PSYCHO. Granted, part of this has to do with the failure of Arquette to reprise her role, but damn, how are you gonna do Tuesday Knight that dirty after she provided the damn theme song to the flick? Ice cold indeed, Krueger style! It’s somewhat ironic, considering what a fiery demise Kristen is subjected to, being burned alive in the boiler-room furnace as Alice looks on in abject horror. This kill, brutal as a standalone fatality, doubles its impact by ending the life of a protagonist and thus handing the reins over to a new final girl.

Another standout death sequence is that of Rick, the best character in the movie. His karate-kicking ways established early on come back to haunt his ass, but before we get into that, it’s worth noting that Rick was meant to die in an elaborate elevator deathtrap (he’s hinted to fear elevators). However, the production ran out of money before they could film this sequence, and the FX cost too much so the script was rewritten to keep Rick alive. But since Harlin already filmed Rick’s funeral, they retooled the script once again and used the karate dojo to tie-in with Rick’s established love of martial arts. I can’t help but wonder how much better the original idea would have been, but still appreciate the way in which Rick ultimately meets his maker. Freddy fires his detached knife-claw at the poor kid’s stomach until it carves a lethally gruesome wound.

Perhaps saving best for last, damn Debbie’s death is right out of a f*cking FLY movie. Sheezus. Just when you thought this gal’s voluminously coiffed hairdo wasn’t unbecoming enough, old foul Freddy turns her into one giant cockroach before snapping her elbows, melting her face off and reducing her to a viscid mound of insectile viscera. Shite’s so gnarly, and easily the most durable death-dream in all of THE DREAM MASTER. It even eclipses the church-fight finale, in which Alice defeats Freddy Krueger and frees her friends’ eternally damned souls from being trapped inside his body. It too kicks all kinds of ass, but in terms of sheer horror, Debbie’s death takes the maggot-ridden cake!

And not for nothing, but for all the 80s horror flicks whose soundtracks we’ve amusingly lambasted, it’s time to do the opposite and laud THE DREAM MASTER’s kickass 80s soundtrack. We’re talking Blondie, Billy Idol, Dramarama, Sinead O’Connor and of course, who can forget the legendary Fat Boys – the chubbier and grubbier RUN DMC – spitting that heat in “Are You Ready For Freddy?” Okay, that last one, including the ridiculous music video, is more of a gimmicky ancillary shoehorn, but the songs played during the actual film are pretty damn legit. If you pay attention to the titles of the songs (“Nightmare,” “Don’t Be afraid of Your Dreams,” “Fatal Charm,” “In the Flesh” etc.) you can see how much fun Harlin was having with thematic tie-ins to the subject matter.

To that end, there are a number of additional tie-ins and tidbits I always dug about THE DREAM MASTER. For instance, the diner Alice works in is called Crave Inn (an overt nod to Wes Craven). Another includes New Line head Bob Shaye playing a teacher in one scene, a la his wife Lin Shaye doing similar in the original ELM STREET flick. Hell, there’s even a poster in Kincaid’s room for Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES, as is a magazine in Kristen’s room with Johnny Depp on the cover. The connections are endless, some subtle, some right in plain sight. Renny Harlin appears as an extra in the classroom, and a poster for his previous film PRISON can be seen at the movie theater. These small details help keep the movie remain as fun a watch as it was back in the summer of ’88!

WHAT BLOWS NOW: He may been spitting that fire back in ’88, but nah, there’s no way in Krueger’s flame-roasted hell we can let him off the hook for those nursery-time-cursory-rhyme shite he was letting off in the Fat Boys video. Straight up, Tom Hanks in the DRAGNET rap video is still laughing at that weak ass verse. Freddy needs to step his rap game up. Even within the film, lines like “no pain, no gain” and “how sweet, fresh meat” ain’t cutting it. Now, Nick spouting “Swish, you killed the fish.” That I can work with (I loved that line so much when I was like 8 or 9). More seriously, the one sequence I always thought threatened to make THE DREAM MASTER almost too campy is the dumb beach sequence. Thankfully it was reduced greatly from the originally shot footage, where Freddy’s shadow was to give Kristen third degree burns. As it is, Freddy rocking those shades and kicking Kristen’s head under the sand are simply too silly to condone. It was in ’88, and damn sure double today!

THE VERDICT: The verdict? You serious? F*ck you right out of here if you think A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER has lost its luster of the past three decades. It hasn’t, and in effect, has solidified itself as one of the upper-echelon franchise sequels, perhaps coming in only behind DREAM WARRIORS. Renny Harlin’s dynamic energy and kinetic pacing and well established tonality of surreal-dream-logic, in conjunction with a handful of kickass death-dreams and a radical 80s soundtrack, very little is left unloved about THE DREAM MASTER.



Extra Tidbit: Tibor Takacs (THE GATE) was offered to direct THE DREAM MASTER before Renny Harlin got the job.
Source: AITH



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